Neuroligins are postsynaptic cell adhesion proteins that bind specifically to presynaptic membrane proteins called neurexins. Mutations in human neuroligin genes are associated with autism spectrum disorders in some families. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has a single neuroligin gene (nlg-1), and approximately a sixth of C. elegans neurons, including some sensory neurons, interneurons and a subset of cholinergic motor neurons, express a neuroligin transcriptional reporter. Neuroligin-deficient mutants of C. elegans are viable, and they do not appear deficient in any major motor functions. However, neuroligin mutants are defective in a subset of sensory behaviors and sensory processing, and are hypersensitive to oxidative stress and mercury compounds; the behavioral deficits are strikingly similar to traits frequently associated with autism spectrum disorders. Our results suggest a possible link between genetic defects in synapse formation or function, and sensitivity to environmental factors in the development of autism spectrum disorders.
↵* These authors contributed equally to this work